Understanding “Bolsonarismo popular”

By Matthew A. Richmond

It is less than a week to go until Brazil goes to the polls again for a Presidential run-off between centre-left former Mayor of São Paulo of the Workers’ Party (PT) and far-right extremist, Jair Bolsonaro of Social Liberal Party (PSL). Polling suggests that close to 60% of the electorate plans to vote for the latter, a man who celebrates the country’s former military dictatorship, has advocated state terror, and says he would not accept electoral defeat. What’s going on?

Much of Bolsonaro’s support is made up of the predominantly white middle to upper classes, many of whom have drifted towards outright authoritarianism since the PT’s narrow victory over the PSDB in 2014. This was the part of the population that dominated the protests calling for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Not all have authoritarian preferences, of course. Many dislike Bolsonaro, but see him as a “lesser evil” compared to Haddad due to their virulent antipetismo (hatred of the PT). As the mainstream right Social Democratic Party of Brazil (PSDB) has collapsed they are moving right for tactical reasons, to keep the PT out.

Whether their decision is primarily ideological or tactical, the attitudes of most middle and upper-class Bolsonaro supporters broadly falls under the banner of the “New Right”, which emerged during the mid-2000s in reaction to PT rule. Shifting away from traditional elitist and authoritarian positions, they emphasised “meritocracy”, opposing welfare programmes like Bolsa Família (BF) and affirmative action in universities. But underlying this lay familiar anti-meritocratic attitudes – of wishing to block the access of the upwardly mobile poor to elite spaces. (Columnist Danuzia Leão famously complained that it was no fun travelling abroad anymore now that you could run into your porter in New York).

However, on its this own group makes up only around 1/4–1/3 of the population. As PSDB discovered in four successive election defeats to the PT between 2002 and 2014, winning over this population is not enough to win the presidency. Bolsonaro is threatening to achieve what the PSDB have failed to in the last four elections. Why?

Because his support also includes large numbers of those on low and modest incomes – precisely those whose mobility higher-income groups have sought to block. That is to say, under Bolsonaro, the far right is bringing together fundamentally different interests and political subjectivities in a way that the “old New Right” never achieved

This is supported by the current polling data. The most recent Datafolha poll on 18th October shows that around two thirds of voters earning more than five minimum wages ($1222 USD per month) favour Bolsonaro, compared to 25% for Haddad and 8% who intend to spoil their ballots. So far, so unsurprising. However, Bolsonaro also leads Haddad among voters who earn between two and five minimum wages ($489–1222) by 56% to 31%. Even among the poorest voters, earning less than two minimum wages (under $489 USD), who in recent elections have formed the PT’s core electorate, Haddad leads by only five points, 44% to Bolsonaro’s 39%.

First round polling data on racial support for the different candidates paint a similar picture. While those who self-classify as white overwhelmingly favouring Bolsonaro, he also leads among brown/mixed race voters, and only narrowly trails among blacks. Among Brazil’s five regions, it is only in the poorest Northeast region that support for Haddad is holding up.

In light of this data, I believe that to understand Bolsonaro’s rise we need to analyse not only the much discussed radicalisation of antipetista sentiment among the middle and upper classes, but also the appeal Bolsonaro represents for large parts of the lower-income and non-white populations. This is crucial to tracing the contours of the new political coalition that Bolsonaro has brought together, but which remains little understood.

Based on extensive research in favelas and peripheries in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, I have several ideas about where this appeal comes from.

Existing theories for Bolsonarismo popular

There are many (for the most part weakly evidenced) theories circulating about why many low-income, non-white Brazilians have drifted rightwards to the extent that many now support Bolsonaro. Here I shall assess a few.

The first point to make is that the peripheries and those I classify as being on low to modest incomes (up to about 3.5 minimum wages, ie. $865 USD) are extremely diverse – in terms of income, employment, housing, religion, race, gender sexuality, age and so on. In terms of social conditions and lifestyles, they became more diverse during the PT years, which brought increases – but also increased disparities – in incomes, as well as improved – though still highly uneven – access to education and public services. Indeed, lifestyles are probably more diverse than among the wealthy, who have more reliable access to private services and those public services that they actually us

So there is an important proviso: it is very difficult to generalise. The theories I believe are less important will certainly apply to some people, and those I propose will not apply to some. I am talking about the broad trends that I believe best account for the electoral shifts we have seen recently.

So what are the theories for the appeal of radical right-wing politics among the poor?

Here are four I hear a lot:

Theory 1: The upwardly mobile poor started to develop attitudes similar to those of the middle-class “New Right”, wanting lower taxes, private healthcare and education, and “meritocracy” in state policies (anti-Bolsa Família, anti-quotas etc)

While I agree opposition to BF is widespread (I’ll return to this below), otherwise I find this claim unconvincing. In my experience, most on low to modest incomes (including many small business owners) still identify as workers and are not in any way ideologically committed to a small state.

Of course people complain about taxes and the quality of public services, but this is a practical rather than ideological question. Because they can’t access the services they expect either through either public or private means, many see their tax money as being wasted.

But lower-income Brazilians tend not to form their attitudes on these questions based on abstract arguments about “state vs market”, but rather in terms of justice. On these grounds, most believe greater distribution is needed and that the wealthy should pay more taxes to fund public services. This tends to be expressed in terms of anger against corrupt politicians’ ill-gotten wealth rather in the explicit language class war, but in my view the underlying attitudes are effectively the same.

Theory 2: The PT did not effectively explain to people what it had done for them, so got no credit for the achievements of their years in power.

While there is a point here about the PT’s failure to improve political education and sustain grassroots organisation after it entered power, on the whole this is not only condescending, but naïve.

The popular classes still face huge everyday difficulties, low incomes and poor services. Why should they be eternally grateful to the PT? Their lives may have improved somewhat, but they still want better. And so they should!

If they don’t believe the PT has answers to the problems they face now, they’re not going to vote for them out of past loyalty. That’s not how politics works (certainly not in Brazil, where party identification is incredibly low).

Theory 3: Popular conservatism among the poor, reinforced by the huge growth and increased political influence of neo-Pentecostal churches, is leading many poor people to vote for Bolsonaro

It is true that a generic popular conservatism has long been identified among Brazil’s poor, leading them disproportionately define as right-wing and to express greater support for certain conservative positions (eg. law and order measures, opposition to abortion).

It is also true that neo-Pentecostal churches have become hugely powerful in recent decades, developing extensive clientelist networks among the poor. This has enabled them to get large numbers of deputies elected to congress, and there pursue an extremely reactionary agenda, particularly with regard to LGBT and women’s rights.

However, I’m skeptical about the extent to which the Evangelical caucus in congress accurately reflects the attitudes of poorer voters. Yes, those who are most involved in the churches tend to fully absorb the doctrine, but most congregants do not. Neo-Pentecostal churches struggle to control their members, who move between different churches and mix different spiritual beliefs. Even as these churches have grown massively, poor Brazilians continue to exhibit highly syncretic religious practices.

Furthermore, on some issues a “live and let live” attitude still tends to reign. Social attitudes polling suggests that most poor Brazilians believe homosexuality should be accepted by society and that women should be able to dress how they wish without fear of rape.

Even if Bolsonaro’s candidacy resonates with some aspects of popular conservatism, at the very least we can say that his homophobic and misogynistic statements and proposals would not on their own be sufficient reason to persuade large numbers of poor Brazilians to vote for him.

Theory 4: Fake news circulating on WhatsApp has indoctrinated large numbers of poor Brazilians

It was recently revealed that Bolsonaro’s campaign made use of illegal, undeclared donations by wealthy backers to fund a massive propaganda campaign via WhatsApp. This included fantastical and libellous claims about leading PT and other leftist politicians and their proposed policies – such as claims that the PT would release criminals en masse or force “gender ideology” on young children in schools.

These smears, which have gone unchallenged, have certainly harmed the PT and may have had a significant influence on the election. However, this is too easy an answer for explaining the swing towards Bolsonaro. When in televised interviews Bolsonaro states in more measured terms that he wants the police to shoot first and ask questions later, resist the “deconstruction of heteronormativity” in schools and prevent the liberalisation of abortion laws, many agree with him.

That is to say that fake news does not brainwash people, but rather exploits pre-existing political dispositions, effectively capturing and radicalising them. We should not be asking how Bolsonaro tricked people into supporting him, but how it was possible for them to be persuaded.


To summarise, while there may a grain (or more) of truth to each of these theories, I don’t believe they are capable of explaining why so many lower-income Brazilians look set to vote for Bolsonaro.

Rethinking Bolsonarismo popular from the perspective of everyday peripheral life

So I’ve discussed the factors I don’t think sufficiently explain “Bolsonarismo popular” – the current appeal of the far right among those on low to modest incomes. Here are those that I think do…

The first is a simple incumbency effect at a moment of severe crisis. The PT was in power for thirteen years, and so, rightly or wrongly, was first to be blamed as the economy and massive corruption scandals detonated simultaneously. President Michel Temer’s Democratic Movement of Brazil (MDB), with PSDB backing, took over for two years and things didn’t improve, so they too became tainted with the crises. With the mainstream parties discredited, Brazilians from all backgrounds, including the poor, became receptive to any candidate who was sufficiently distant from the incumbents to look like an “outsider” and who sounded as angry as they were.

However, I believe Bolsonaro also has a more concrete appeal for many lower-income Brazilians. To explain why, we need to stop thinking in idealistic and abstract terms about people’s attitudes towards the state, market, politics, religion, sex etc, and instead think about what their everyday lives are like. What are the challenges people face relative to their expectations? Where I have conducted research in recent years, in favelas and peripheries in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, lifestyles are highly diverse, but there are also some clear patterns.

Some of these are the product of major successes during the PT years. Although still a minority, many more people now go to university. Pretty much everyone in the peripheries now knows someone with a degree – a remarkable change from 20 years ago, when it was almost unheard of. This is thanks to students grants, racial and income quotas in public universities, and a huge expansion of the higher education system.

Absolute poverty also fell dramatically thanks to minimum wage and pension increases and welfare programmes, especially Bolsa Família (“BF”). Access to water and basic sanitation continued to expand and became nearly universal. Although poverty has been rising again since 2014, it has not yet reached pre-PT levels.

In other areas, things have improved less, or not at all. Public schools remain underfunded and teachers are undertrained. Although providing universal care, the public healthcare system (SUS) suffers from resource shortages and long waiting lists. Both situations have been aggravated by extreme austerity measures imposed by the Temer government.

Although incomes rose under the PT, work became less secure with a continued structural shift away from manufacturing towards more flexible service and construction jobs. The employment situation has been aggravated by a huge growth in unemployment since 2014 and Temer’s 2017 labour reforms.

Then there is the question of security. Nationally, levels of violent crime have risen steadily for years. In São Paulo and Rio, recent spikes notwithstanding, the long-term trend has been for violence to fall. However, this is in large part due to the consolidation of territorial control by criminal factions. In many other cities, it has exploded.

The state has been unable to seriously address the problem. Rio’s favela pacification programme proved too expensive to be a sustainable model, especially after the state went bankrupt in 2016. Mass incarceration in São Paulo has only strengthened and expanded the reach of the hegemonic First Command of the Capital (PCC) criminal faction from the state’s prisons. Elsewhere, police appear impotent as gang wars rage.

Meanwhile, it is low-level criminal actors and those mistaken for criminals (mainly dark-skinned teenagers) who die in extraordinary numbers. Unable to prevent everyday criminality within legal constraints, police and vigilante groups increasingly seek vengeance outside the law. A hidden and diffuse paramilitary war against proletarian criminals is already a reality and is supported by huge numbers of favela and periphery residents. Bolsonaro wants to make this war official.

For me, the key to understanding “Bolsonarismo popular” revolves around these everyday stresses of life in peripheries. People who work long hours for low pay, struggle to continue their studies, despair about the healthcare of their parents and schooling of their children. Their lives are hard and they believe they are doing the right thing. Then they look around themselves and see those they believe are undeserving – “lazy” Bolsa Família recipients and “bandidos” (criminals) and it makes them angry. They ask, why are they suffering when these people are not?

Yes, neo-Pentecostal doctrine and fake news help to channel this anger, but they do not produce it. It is moralistic, but not primarily religious and certainly not neoliberal. Ultimately, it is about correcting what is viewed as a profound injustice – that those who work hard do not get what they believe they deserve – like education, healthcare and security – and those who do not work hard get things they don’t deserve – like rudimentary welfare and de jure human rights.

It is no coincidence that Bolsonaro centres his discourse on the figure of the “cidadão de bem”, the upstanding, law-abiding citizen. Many in the peripheries recognise themselves in this ideal-type. They want greater citizenship and, in the moralistic and security-centred notion of citizenship that Bolsonaro present, are led to believe that this depends upon taking away rights from those whose citizenship is even more precarious. This is a crusade of second-class citizens against non-citizens, orchestrated by those who rights and privileges are never in doubt.

Matthew A. Richmond is Visiting Fellow at the Latin America and Caribbean Centre, LSE and Research Associate at Centro de Estudos da Metrópole, USP.

Originally published 27th October 2018

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